There are many ways of making a still wine, bubbly – each with its own level of appropriateness, challenges, and history. There are many regions that specialize in their own form of making sparkling wine – Champagne, Cava, Prosecco, Cremant, Sekt, etc. There are also a lot of ways to describe the type of bubbles you experience in a sparkling wine. You might be thinking – but I thought Champagne was just another word for sparkling wine…? What the heck is a Cava? Aren’t the method traditionelle and champagne method the same thing??
It’s all pretty confusing for the average consumer. Heck, I’ve studied these at length and still feel like I’m still unsure of quite a few things. One thing I am certain of, however, is that I’ll be popping a bottle of bubbly once this era of COVID lockdown is behind us.
First, the winemaking methods
I’d like to preface this by informing you that I’ve put together a little chart to help visualize the various processes and how they relate to each other.
1) Méthode Traditionelle
This method has several different aliases. Some of you might know this as the Champagne Method, Méthode Champenoise, Classical method, etc.. Whatever your choice of name, it is used for the highest quality sparkling wines, as well as most notably, in the region of Champagne itself. This method is characterized by the a lees-aging (giving it that bready, toasty character) as well as the riddling process. Riddling, or remuage en français, is the process by which the lees/sediment that forms at the bottom of the bottle, is gradually moved to the neck of the bottle by slowly being inverted vertically. In ancient times, this was done by hand, over a period of 6 weeks. For the most part, this labour-intensive process has been replaced by a Catalonian invention called the gyropalette, and can take as little as 3 days. Once the deposit has collected at the head/neck of the bottle, it is frozen, and then removed – a process called disgorgement. As soon as this frozen pellet of sediment is removed, each bottle is topped off with a mixture of wine and sugar (24 g/L) – a process called dosage – in order to sweeten the sparkling wine to roughly 5-12 g/L of sugar. The bottle is then corked and caged, and voila, the méthode traditionelle is complete!
2) Transfer Method
Up until the time you need to riddle, the early stages in this method are pretty much the same as the traditional method. However, instead of the labour intensive process of riddling your bottles, all of the bottles are poured into a tank, and the sediment is removed by filtration. Dosage is added to the tank, and the wine is bottled. On the label, you’ll often see these as “bottle-fermented” sparkling wines.
3) Méthode Ancestrale/Pétillant Naturel
This process is currently in a period of renaissance. If you’re riding the wave of this hip new (actually old) mode of winemaking, you’re calling it “Pet Nat”. We’re seeing it a lot in the New World. Basically, once the grapes are pressed and the juice is collected, the juice is bottled, where fermentation will occur in individual bottles – that’s it! The result is a lightly sparkling, usually sweeter wine. There will also be sediment, as particles precipitate to the bottom of the bottle – this said, some producers will decant the bottles and clear out the sediment.
Pet Nat is a low-intervention method, flourishing in the current era, where demand for natural products is high. This is a good thing.
4) Charmat Process/ Tank Method
Labelled as granvas in Spanish and autoclave in Italian, this is the most widely used method. It’s cheaper, faster, and involves less labour. Secondary fermentation occurs in large pressurized tanks by the addition of yeast and sugar. This fermentation is rapid, and is manually stopped by cooling the winemaking environment to -5C. Dosage is then added and the wine is bottled.
This method is suited for wines with little to no ageing potential. The wines will taste most similar to their still-wine versions. The complexity of flavours from bottle-fermentation is absent.
I call this the “why bother?” method. Much like your can of Coke, this involves the straight injection of CO2 in a pressurized tank. It’s the cheapest way of doing adding bubbles to your wine, and unsurprisingly, done for lowest-quality sparkling wines. Bubbles don’t last long either.
Second, the Regions.
1) Champagne (France)
When you call a sparkling wine “Champagne”, you’re referring to a very specific and historically significant type of sparkling wine. The history of Champagne is worthy of a post dedicated solely to itself.
“Champagne” must come from the Champagne AC region. The region itself is quite interesting. It contains 44 premier cru, 17 grand cru. It has 5 sub-regions and hundreds of villages. Historically, there were strict guidelines when it comes to being able to grow grapes on a piece of land within Champagne. Recently however, there are more reviews done, to see if there is more suitable land that can be used to grow grapes for Champagne. It’s an interesting debate – on the one hand, the availability of Champagne would be greater, however this could come at a cost in terms of quality of wine produced.
Historical fun fact: In the 17th century, wine produced in Champagne was still wine, made from Pinot Noir grapes. As this is the most northerly wine producing region in France, the cold winters would stop fermentation. A second fermentation would then kick up again in the Spring, creating CO2. This lead to the creation of stronger bottles in the 18th century, and eventually, the establishment of sparkling wine/Champagne in the region by the early 19th century.
Green fun fact: all of Champagne’s producers are fully committed to sustainable agricultural practices, this is highlighted by their strong targets which aim to significantly reduce the use of inorganic fertilizers and pesticides.
Champagne is made from 3 main grape varieties: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Meunier. A “Blanc de Blancs” refers to a white sparkling wine made from solely white grape varietals, while a “Blanc de Noirs” refers to a white sparkling wine made from red grape varietals (the latter is done by not allowing the pressed juice to remain in contact with the skins).
Champagne must be made using the traditional method. Most producers ferment their wines in stainless steel, however a small portion ferment in aged oak. Non-Vintage blends must be aged for a minimum of 15 months – 12 of which must be on its lees. Vintage wines must be aged for a minimum of 36 months, without a lees aging minimum.
Weather varies incredibly from year to year in Champagne. As such, most Champagne is made as Non-Vintage, and are a blend of wines from various years (or “Vintages“). The reason for this is so that a producer, especially a larger producer (think Veuve Clicquot) known for a certain style, can achieve this desired style from year to year. Vintage Champagnes are made only in the best years – usually 3 or 4 years per decade!
Ok so what does Champagne taste like? With all the different winemaking methods, vineyard sites, and weather variations from year to year, there’s no ONE answer. In its most common-denominator form, Champagne displays citrus and yellow apple fruit characteristics, with secondary and tertiary flavours of cream, nuttiness, and bread or toastiness. Structurally, it will have high acidity, lower alcohol (usually 11.5-12.5%), light body, and can range in levels of sweetness.
2) Crémant (Mostly France)
The term “Crémant” is used to describe France’s finest sparkling wines, outside of the Champagne region. for sparkling wines from various French sparkling wine AC’s (appellation contrôlée) – the most important of which are Crémant d’Alsace, Crémant de Bourgogne, Crémant de Loire – but definitely arent limited to these appellations.
Fun fact: Luxembourg has a long-standing tradition of producing sparkling wine, and the Crémant de Luxembourg is the only appellation of France that is labelled as a Crémant. The variety of grapes they use are: Elbling, Pinot Blanc, Rivaner, Auxerrois, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir.
This said, there are some general winemaking rules if you want to call your sparkling wine a Crémant. This includes pressing grapes as whole clusters, limits on sulphur dioxide use, yield restrictions, and a minimum of 12 months between bottling and release.
Each appellation (Bourgogne, Bordeaux, Luxembourg, etc.) will use it’s own variety of grapes, and the various terroirs. As such, crémants can produce a wine variety of aromas, flavours, and textures. Generally speaking however, crémants are quite similar to Champagne’s – displaying flavours of lemon, white peach, almond, and toast. They are light to medium bodied, high in acidity, and can come in a variety of sweetness levels.
3) Cava (Spain)
Cava is a special appellation in the sense that it is made up of several delineated areas. Ninety-five percent of Cava is located in Cataluyna (centering mainly around the town of Sant Sadurní d’Anoia), while the rest is broken up between Valencia, Aragón, Navarra, Rioja, and Basque Country.
Cava is made in the traditional method, using grapes native to the various areas of Cava. These include Macabeo/Viura (this grape produces one of my favourite still white wines), Parellada, Xarello, Garnacha, and Monastrell. French varieties Chardonnay and Pinot Noir have also been introduced – this, as one might expect, caused some controversy.
Maybe you’ve heard of Freixenet? Created in 1889, the company is still family-owned to this day, and has gone on to become one of the biggest producers of sparkling wine in the world. Generally speaking, most Cava is non-vintage and ready-to drink once it leaves the winery. If you see a premium Cava laying around, it’s likely to have been left on its lees for an extended period of time – Cava Gran Reserva, for example, is aged on lees for a minimum of 30 months, and is vintage-dated.
A very approachable form of sparkling wine, Cava is generally less acidic than Champagne. It displays flavours of quince, lime, yellow apple, and if you’re lucky, some chamomile and almonds.
4) Prosecco (Italy)
Our trip around the regions of sparkling wines ends in North-East Italy. The general prosecco region sprawls from Veneto, Friuli and C-V. Basically, there are two delimited regions: 1) Prosecco DOC, and the higher quality 2) Conegliano-Valdobbiadene DOCG. Much like Champagne, Prosecco very much has a hierarchy in terms of quality. At the top of the pyramid, you’ll find Valdobbiadene Superiore di Cartizze DOCG (which is a micro region of 265 acres). These vineyard sites of C-V are found on hills and terraces in the range of 50m to 500m in altitude. These sites also allow contain growing conditions that allow the grapes to ripen more than the rest of the delimited areas. At the bottom of this pyramid, you’ll find Prosecco DOC – the most basic of Prosecco. In 2009, the Prosecco grape was renamed to ‘Glera’ in order to protect and avoid producers outside of the region using the name to market their product. The amount of Prosecco produced is incredible – as much as 300 million bottles in a given year.
Prosecco is made using the tank method, and compared to Champagne, Crémant, and Cava, these sparkling wines contain more residual sugar. Acidity is lower than what you’ll find in France and sometimes even in Spain. In Prosecco, you’ll generally find greener notes – things like green apple, honeydew, pear, along with cream and lager notes. Prosecco is generally more perfumed, and are meant to be consumed while they are fresh and young – no need to age!
Third, the Bubbles Matter.
I’m not going to get into the minutia of the different types of bubbles you can experience from sparkling wine, but just know this. There ARE differences between bubbles, and they DO matter (at least to some). The bubbles you get from the care, craft, and skill, required to make a sparkling wine with the methode traditionelle will be tighter, smoother, and longer lasting than carbonation. The bubbles from a Pet Nat will be smaller and lighter in its intensity.
Here’s a list of some terms I have at one point used, or heard someone use, in order to describe their experience with a bubble (it’s worth a good little laugh). If you’ve heard of any others, please feel free to add to my list!